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The moult: why is my chicken losing her feathers?

Many novice chicken-keepers are horrified when their first chickens suddenly start to lose feathers, and think that there is something wrong with the birds. In fact, moulting is a perfectly natural process which occurs annually in late autumn or early winter. It can look fairly shocking, particularly in hybrid birds which lose a lot of feathers all in one go, but don’t panic: in a few weeks the birds will have their new feathers and will be plump, fluffy and looking better than ever.

The moult process

Once grown, feathers cannot repair themselves. Even with careful preening they deteriorate over time, and by late summer the plumage of birds more than a year old may be looking tatty, dull and lacking in lustre – hardly fit for keeping the birds warm through a damp and dismal winter. Nature’s solution is to have the birds drop the feathers and regrow new ones in pristine condition; not all at once, but in ordered sections so that the bird is never completely bald.

The moult usually occurs in a predictable pattern: head and neck first; then the saddle, breast and abdomen; then wings; and finally the tail. The speed at which the moult progresses is tied in with how well the bird lays. This means that for some heritage breeds moulting is long and drawn out, whereas for modern laying hybrids it can be very abrupt with sections overlapping, leaving the birds looking almost oven-ready. If one of your birds takes much longer than others of the same breed to moult, it’s a good bet that they’re a poor layer too.

What if it’s the wrong time of year?

Moults can occur at any time of the year if a bird is subjected to stress. Stresses that affect chickens include sudden changes in light (such as several days of really heavy weather or shutting the bird up in a shed for several days), shortage of food or water, poor conditions, disease or internal parasites, sudden changes in temperature (such as a heatwave or cold snap), fright (from children, pets and predators, or a sudden shift in the pecking order), or other traumas. In young and healthy birds, exposure to stress will usually only cause a temporary drop in egg production, but for older or ill birds, stress can halt laying altogether and trigger a moult. Feather loss can also be a sign of feather pecking.

Chicken with feather loss, image

Poor Spike! Wounds need to be treated quickly – in this case with gentian spray.

If you see a sudden decline in egg laying or notice feathers lying around when it isn’t moulting time, see if you can identify what may have stressed the bird; if you cannot, be wary for signs of illness and quarantine any birds that you think may be unwell.

Laying during the moult

Regrowing feathers takes a lot of protein and energy, so the hen’s reproductive system shuts down to give priority to feather production. Heavily laying hybrids may lay through the early part of the moult, only stopping when the wing feathers begin to fall, but for most birds laying stops a few weeks before the moult actually starts. This sometimes leads novice poultry-keepers to suspect illness, but the time of year is a big clue that the moult may be coming up; if the birds look otherwise well there should be nothing to worry about.

Diet during the moult

Because feathers are 85% protein, chickens need a lot of protein in their diet while they are moulting. Chickens who are short of protein may start to peck other birds’ feathers, a habit that can be really difficult to break. If you stick entirely to a complete commercial food then you have little to worry about, but if you supplement with mixed (or “scratch” corn) or other foods to stretch the commercial ration, you should cut back on these until the moult is over. Some chicken keepers like to give their birds a mineral supplement such as Poultry Spice during the moult, and although this probably isn’t necessary for birds given a balanced feed, it does seem to be popular with the chickens themselves.

Providing shelter

Even fully-feathered chickens are not waterproof. Under normal conditions they will ignore light rain, but they will seek shelter if they start to get chilled. Naturally, half-bald chickens get chilled faster than fully-feathered ones, so it is important to make sure that they have access to shelter of some sort. This doesn’t have to be fancy; anything that allows the birds to get out of the rain and the worst of the wind will do fine.

After the moult

If you clip the wings of your birds (useful for escape artists that are light enough to fly), you’ll have to do it again once the new flight feathers have grown.

Each moult represents the end of a reproductive cycle for your birds, and the following cycle will be less productive as the bird ages. After the first moult, you’ll get 90% (for older breeds) to 70% (for modern hybrids) as many eggs during the second cycle. The second moult will take longer than the first one did, and after it (in the bird’s third reproductive cycle) you’ll only get 70 to 80% of the eggs you got in the second cycle. So for modern hybrids, which are inexpensive and lay 300+ eggs in their first year, it may make sense to replace them by the second moult.

Andy says...

Andy says…

“If maintaining egg production all year round is critical (say, for farm gate sales) this can be achieved by replacing half of your stock in late summer each year. Birds bought at point-of-lay in summer will not moult until the following year, so their eggs will see you through the period when last year’s birds are moulting. So in summer 2012 you may buy some pullets which will lay while the 2011 birds are moulting, and the 2010 birds are for the pot.”

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20 Responses to “The moult: why is my chicken losing her feathers?”

  1. Mark Gatter says:

    Not being motivated by egg production, our own 2010 chickens won’t be for the pot but will instead continue to be survivors of battery hen (i.e. concentration camp) farming, and will be allowed to live out the rest of their days in peace and comfort regardless of whether they lay or not. And a very Happy New Year to all!”

  2. Chickens says:

    The most impressive and dramatic moulters here are the wyandottes. They seem to look normal one day, then be almost bald the next. Then come the prickly new feathers all at once. They get quite miserable for a while.

  3. Jenny says:

    My chickens are 1 year old and are loosing there feathers on the back at base of tail all across there backs,they live with a very handsome cockerel is this his fault!!! will they get better

    • Andy McKee says:

      Probably not – but the only way to find out is to watch the birds and see who’s pecking who. Feather loss can be caused by overcrowding, but it can also be a sign of infestation by lice, fleas or mites making the birds pull their own feathers out. So, check all the birds for lice or mites (especially around the vent) and check the house for red mites (with a torch, at night). Otherwise, wait and see who’s doing the feather pulling!

  4. marina says:

    I have two hens living together happily and are 1 year old. one of them has been broody for 3 weeks and is bald on her chest but over night she became bald on her back. Their house is a modern Eglu and kept clean but rooks get in to the run to feed from the feed bowl. the other day the broody hen was trapped outside the house and was sitting patiently to be let in. Could it be that the rooks plucked her feathers to line their nests with or could she be plucking her own feathers out and if so, why? it isn’t moulting time so what could it be?

    • Andy McKee says:

      I doubt that the rooks would have been so thorough – or so considerate. If she was getting that much attention, they probably would have killed her. But as to ‘moulting time’ – you mentioned that the birds are only one year old. It’s possible that this one has done a midsummer moult – they’re unusual but not unheard of, so if it followed the usual pattern of head/neck, breast, back/thighs then that might be what’s going on. Stresses caused by temporary feed or water shortage, disease, cold temperatures, or sudden changes in the lighting program can also cause a partial or premature molt.

      Feather pecking is unlikely to be the problem as it’s not that sudden, but you should check her over carefully for mites and other nasties. Check out our articles on the moult, sick chickens, and pests and predators for further info.

  5. Lisa says:

    We have four chickens. They have been harrassed by a pair of magpies. We have had many misshapen eggs. Now one of our chickens is moulting and only one of them is laying.

    Any ideas on how we can help settle the chickens down again and get them laying? Thanks. Lisa

    • Andy McKee says:

      Stress can certainly bring on some odd laying behaviour and a partial moult, but there are other factors to think about. The age of the birds and when they came into lay is important in determining the moult time – you can find the information here but it’s a southern-hemisphere site so add six months to all the dates. There’s also the weather – I’m seeing an unusual amount of premature-moult queries on the web this year, so the cool, dull April weather may have something to do with it.

      Work out what the magpies are after. If it’s eggs, remove them from the nestbox promptly each day and put some decoy eggs in for them to batter their beaks on until they give up. If it’s feed, replace your feeder with a hanging one like this. Magpies can’t reach up as high as a chicken (even a bantam) so if you get the height right the magpies will get very little of your feed, and should stop hanging around so much.

  6. Timmsy says:

    Hi there

    we have 3 chooks in a reasonable size coup. I have noticed one of the chickens losing feathers. They are all 9 months old. Reading a lot of information i would it put it down to molting as we are now in early winter and seen a few extreme cold mornings around -1. i also suspect she has gone off the lay as we are only receiving 2 eggs per day but 3 every few days.
    All the chickens seems happy and we do let them out into the yard often. I have noticed the feathers say in the last week, but slowing in the egg production for the last 3 weeks? Would this seem like molting? How long would this last for?

    Thanks for your help

    • Andy McKee says:

      Sounds like the moult to me – you should check that the pattern matches what you’d expect in the moult, which you’ll find in paragraph 2 of this article. How long it will take depends on how intensively the breed lays: 8-10 weeks for a modern hybrid, longer for pure-breeds. Don’t forget to toss us a ‘like’ if we’ve helped!

  7. Nic says:

    Andy
    My three chickens started losing feathers and look oven ready about 4 months ago and still they are not showing any sign of growing new ones. They have been layingt throughout and apart from a couple of odd 1 or 2 egg days they continue to lay. I have added some cider vinegar to the water for a couple of weeks but no difference. One is a blacktail and the other two are white leghorns.
    Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks

    • Andy McKee says:

      Well, there’s the matter of why they lost the feathers in the first place. Since there are different breeds involved I think we can rule out a simultaneous moult, so the most likely causes were an infection or a traumatic event… or something wrong with their diet.

      Assuming you’ve already checked them for parasites and feather pecking, and thought hard about their feed, they should feather up again when they reach their ‘proper’ moult in a month or two. In the meantime give them some extra protein – so either give them a handful of mealworms daily or put them onto breeder’s pellets for a few weeks. Oh and one last thing – check the house for red spider mites. This means popping to the house at night, and checking the perch with a torch. If they’re there you’ll see them.

      Don’t forget to ‘like’ us if we’ve helped!

      • Nic says:

        Andy
        Thanks for the info.
        I don’t recall any trauma or signs of disease, it was just a gradual process. Which continues.
        We use layers pellets from a local feed store and a handfull of mixed corn. They also get lettuce and maize cobs in season.
        No sign of mites.
        Will get some meal worms and try that.
        Thanks again,
        Nic

        PS not sure how I like?

        • Andy McKee says:

          You’re welcome, and I hope they feather up again nicely once the drop in light triggers a proper moult. To ‘like’ or ‘follow’ just log into facebook, google+, twitter of whatever else you use and click on the corresponding icon above or below the article. Or, to follow us, use the buttons in the sidebar.

  8. Tony says:

    My chicken is around 4 months old and has stayed sitting in the nesting box for around a week now, venturing out only now and then to eat and drink. i noticed today that the feathers on her under side are gone thus resting her skin on the straw. is this a moult? should i be concerned as she is not chirly at all.

    Thanks

    Tony

    • Andy McKee says:

      Not a classic moult pattern – she might be rehearsing for being broody (some chickens pull breast feathers out in a half-hearted nest lining exercise, but it isn’t usually dramatic).

      Check her out for mites and fleas too.

  9. Tyler Toedtli says:

    Hi my Plymouth rock is rapidly losing all.ofnher feathers and we have a lot of rain in my area and none of my other chickens are moulring. The Plymouth looked very sick today shuddering with her eyes closed. We put her in the coop and gave her a light. What should we door? She is very still.

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